Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Bambi, a Life in the Woods

It's rather cliche to exclaim that a book is better than the movie based on it. In most cases this is simply because the book allows greater length and depth than two or even three hours on screen can permit. Rarely is it because a work is so suited to the medium of literature that transferring it to the visual medium of film necessarily causes it to lose what makes it beautiful. This may be the case with Bambi, a Life in the Woods by the Austrian author Felix Salten. Published in 1923 and translated to English by Whittaker Chambers in 1928 - and, of course, adapted by Walt Disney in 1942 - Bambi is heralded not only as one of the first environmental novels, but one of the masterpieces of nature literature.

1932 edition illustration by Kurt Weise.

Salten, via Chambers, is a careful wordsmith whose sensual writing is thick with profound simplicity. For example, here is Bambi discovering the meadow for the first time:
Bambi bounded out. Joy seized him with such tremendous force that he forgot his worries in a flash. Through the thicket he could see only the green treetops overhead. Once in a while he caught a glimpse of the blue sky.
Now he saw the whole heaven stretching far and wide, and he rejoiced without knowing why. In the forest he had seen only a stray sunbeam now and then, or the tender, dappled light that played through the branches. Suddenly he was standing in the blinding hot sunlight whose boundless power was beaming upon him. He stood in the splendid warmth that made him shut his eyes but which opened his heart.
Bambi was as though bewitched. He was completely beside himself with pleasure. He was simply wild. He leaped into the air three, four, five times. He had to do it. He felt a terrible desire to leap and jump. He stretched his young limbs joyfully. His breath came deeply and easily. He drank in the air. The sweet smell of the meadow made him so wildly happy that he had to leap into the air...
Since he had been in the open, Bambi had felt the sky and sun and the green meadow with his whole body. He took one blinding, giddy glance at the sun, and he felt its rays as they lay warmly on his back.  
And here is his description of the "little April showers":
There were storms, too, once or twice, both in the day time and at night. The first was in the daytime and Bambi felt himself grow terrified as it became darker and darker in his glade. It seemed to him as if night had covered the sky at midday. When the raging storm broke through the woods so that the trees began to groan aloud, Bambi trembled with terror. And when the lightning flashed and the thunder growled, Bambi was numb with fear and thought the end of the world had come. He ran behind his mother, who had sprung up somewhat disturbed and was walking back and forth in the thicket. He could not think about nor understand anything. The rain fell in raging torrents. Everyone had run to shelter. The woods were empty. But there was no escaping the rain. The pouring water penetrated even the thickest parts of the bushes. Presently the lightning stopped, and the firey rays ceased to flicker through the treetops. The thunder rolled away. Bambi could hear it in the distance, and soon it stopped altogether. The rain beat more gently. It pattered evenly and steadily around him for another hour. The forest stood breathing deeply in the calm and let the water drain off. No one was afraid to come out any more. That feeling had passed. The rain had washed it away.
Salten writes so matter-of-factly, but in doing so imbues his woods with vibrancy. It is easy enough to animate the general events, but difficult to capture the sense of what Salten writes. Parts are completely unfilmable, as when Bambi listens to the great elk of the forest:
Sometimes he liked to listen to his big cousins the elk. The whole forest would tremble with their kingly voices. Bambi used to listen and be very much frightened, but his heart would beat high with admiration when he heard them calling. He remembered that the kings had antlers branching like tall, strong trees. And it seemed to him that their voices were as powerful as their antlers. Whenever he heard the deep tones of those voices he would stand motionless. Their deep voices rolled toward him like the mighty moaning of noble, maddened blood whose primal power was giving utterance to longing, rage and pride. Bambi struggled in vain against his fears. They overpowered him whenever he heard those voices, but he was proud to have such noble relatives. At the same time he felt a strange sense of annoyance because they were so unapproachable. It offended and humiliated him without his knowing exactly how or why, even without his being particularly conscious of it. 
A sequence which Disney did intend to animate but ultimately cut was the magnificent eighth chapter. In this chapter, the two last leaves of autumn discuss mortality, in a spell-binding dialogue that rivals anything in equally profound children's books like Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad and Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's The Little Prince. Here I present it in its entirety:
The leaves were falling from the great oak at the meadow's edge. They were falling from the trees.
One branch of the oak reached high above the others and stretched far out over the meadow. Two leaves clung to it's very tip.
"It isn't the way it used to be," said one leaf to the other.
"No," the other leaf answered. "So many of us have fallen off to-night we're almost the only ones left on our branch."
"You never know who's going to go next," said the first leaf. "Even when it was warm and the sun shone, a storm or a cloudburst would come sometimes, and many leaves were torn off, though they were still young. You never know who's going to go next."
"The sun seldom shines now," sighed the second leaf, "and when it does it gives no warmth. We must have warmth again."
"Can it be true," said the first leaf, "can it really be true, that others come to take our places when we're gone and after them still others, and more and more?"
"It is really true," whispered the second leaf. "We can't even begin to imagine it, it's beyond our powers."
"It makes me very sad," added the first leaf.
They were silent for a while. Then the first leaf said quietly to herself, "Why must we fall?..."
The second leaf asked, "What happens to us when we have fallen?"
"We sink down...."
"What is under us?"
The first leaf answered, "I don't know, some say one thing, some another, but nobody knows."
The second leaf asked, "Do we feel anything, do we know anything about ourselves when we're down there?"
The first leaf answered, "Who knows? Not one of all those down there has ever come back to tell us about it."
They were silent again. Then the first leaf said tenderly to the other, "Don't worry so much about it, you're trembling."
"That's nothing," the second leaf answered, "I tremble at the least thing now. I don't feel so sure of my hold as I used to."
"Let's not talk any more about such things," said the first leaf.
The other replied, "No, we'll let be. But-- what else shall we talk about?"
She was silent, but went on after a little while, "Which of us will go first?"
"There's still plenty of time to worry about that," the other leaf assured her. "Let's remember how beautiful it was, how wonderful, when the sun came out and shone so warmly that we thought we'd burst with life. Do you remember? And the morning dew, and the mild and splendid nights...."
"Now the nights are dreadful," the second leaf complained, "and there is no end to them."
"We shouldn't complain," said the first leaf gently. "We've outlived many, many others."
"Have I changed much?" asked the second leaf shyly but determinedly.
"Not in the least," the first leaf assured her.
"You only think so because I've got to be so yellow and ugly. but it's different in your case."
"You're fooling me," the second leaf said.
"No, really," the first leaf exclaimed eagerly, "believe me, you're as lovely as the day you were born. Here and there may be a little yellow spot but it's hardly noticeable and only makes you handsomer, believe me."
"Thanks," whispered the second leaf, quite touched. "I don't believe you, not altogether, but I thank you because you're so kind, you've always been so kind to me. I'm just beginning to understand how kind you are."
"Hush," said the other leaf, and kept silent herself for she was too troubled to talk anymore.
Then they were both silent. Hours passed.
A moist wind blew, cold and hostile, through the tree tops.
"Ah, now," said the second leaf, "I....." Then her voice broke off. She was torn from her place and spun down.
Winter had come.
This is followed soon after by the terrifying and heart-rending tenth chapter, in which Man has entered the forest. Disney conveys the panic of the hunting party out for sport quite well, but by necessity had to shy from the unrelenting horror. Only a few paragraphs suffice to explain why:
A tangle of bushes he blundered into forced him to slacken his pace and look for a path. He pawed the ground impatiently with his hoofs. "This way!" called someone with a gasping voice. Bambi obeyed involuntarily and found an opening at once. Someone moved feebly in front of him. It was Friend Hare's wife who had called.
"Can you help me a little?" she said. Bambi looked at her and shuddered. Her hind leg dangled lifelessly in the snow, dyeing it red and melting it with warm, oozing blood. "Can you help me a little?" she repeated. She spoke as if she were well and whole, almost as if she were happy. "I Don't know what can have happened to me," she went on. "There's really no sense to it, but I just can't seem to walk..."
In the middle of her words she rolled over on her side and died. Bambi was seized with horror again and ran.  
And then comes the aching restraint of the chapter's final lines:
Then Bambi asked despondently, "Aunt Ena, have you seen my mother?"
"No," answered Aunt Ena gently.
Bambi never saw his mother again.
Whereas the first half of the book describes the wonders of growth and discovery, from this point on Bambi turns its attention to the melancholy of maturity and loss. As Bambi ages he follows the instinctual call of the male deer to separate himself, which his father the great stag tells him is the lonely space in which wisdom is forged:
Bambi had met Faline the night before. She looked sadly at him and was very shy.
"I'm so much alone now," she said gently.
"I'm alone too," Bambi answered with some hesitation.
"Why don't you stay with me any more?" Faline asked sorrowfully, and it hurt him to see the gay and lively Faline so serious and downcast.
"I want to be alone," he replied. And gently as he tried to say it, it sounded hard. He felt it himself.
Faline looked at him and asked softly, "Do you love me still?"
"I don't know," Bambi answered in the same tone.
She walked silently away from him, leaving him alone.
He stood under the great oak at the meadow's edge and peered out cautiously, drinking in the pure and odorless morning air. It was moist and fresh from the earth, the dew, the grass and the wet woods. Bambi breathed in great gulps of it. All at once his spirit felt freer than for a long time. He walked happily onto the mist-covered meadow.
But even then, no part of life is ever wholly untempered, either joy without sadness or solitude without longing:
Faline lifted her head and gazed across as though she sensed his presence. Again Bambi started forward, but he stopped again, hesitating and unable to stir.
He saw that Faline had grown old and gray.
"Gay, pert little Faline, how lovely she used to be," he thought, "and how lively!" His whole youth suddenly flashed before his eyes. The meadow, the trails where he walked with his mother, the happy games with Gobo and Faline, the nice grasshoppers and butterflies, the fight with Karus and Ronno when he had won Faline for his own. He felt happy again, and yet he trembled.
Faline wandered on, her head drooped to the ground, walking slowly, sadly and wearily away. At that moment Bambi loved her with an overpowering, tender melancholy. He wanted to rush through the hollow that separated him from the others. He wanted to overtake her, to talk with her, to talk to her about their youth and about everything that had happened.
He gazed after her as she went off, passing under the bare branches till finally she was lost to sight.
He stood there a long time staring after her.
The demands of cinema forced upon Bambi a dramatic climax with hunters and dogs and a forest fire and Bambi being shot and having to protect Faline from rivals, which conflates a number of separate episodes in the book. The forest fire is absent entirely, because the point of the novel isn't heady action. The final chapters become ever more a silent meditation on death and, particularly, the mystery posed by Man:
He was lying with His pale, naked face turned upward, His hat a little to one side on the snow. Bambi, who did not know anything about hats, thought His horrible head was split in two. The poacher's shirt, open at the neck, was pierced where a wound gaped like a small red mouth. Blood was oozing out slowly. Blood was drying on His hair and around His nose. A big pool of it lay on the snow which was melting from the warmth...
"Do you see, Bambi," the old stag went on, "do you see how He's lying there dead, like one of us? Listen, Bambi. He isn't all-powerful as they say. Everything that lives and grows doesn't come from Him. He isn't above us. He's just the same as we are. He has the same fears, the same needs, and suffers in the same way. He can be killed like us, and then He lies helpless on the ground like all the rest of us, as you see Him now."
There was silence.
"Do you understand me, Bambi?" asked the old stag.
"I think so," Bambi said in a whisper.
"Then speak," the old stag commanded.
Bambi was inspired, and said trembling, "There is Another who is over us all, over us and over Him."
"Now I can go," said the old stag. 
If this review is slight on explication, it is only because masterpieces speak best for themselves. Bambi is that class of book where one is best served to savour its own words rather than words about it.

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